The Power of the Put On

Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow

In a now famous piece in the New York Times (“Without a Doubt” October 17, 2004), Ron Suskind described a conversation with an unnamed aide within the executive branch of the federal government. The aide listened to Suskind’s questions and eventually observed that Suskind and his ilk were a part of “what we call the reality-based community.” The reality-based are those who still “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Suskind agreed to the label, perhaps presuming it to be a compliment, and the aide cut him off:

That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actor…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Is it such a surprise? Manufactured realities are the business of governments, transnational corporations, and other top buyers of advertising space. Advertising isn’t what they do with a small percentage of their budget, with whatever’s left over after they’ve provided excellent services and manufactured goods; advertising is primary vocation. As McLuhan taught, the mediums are the messages. We’re soaking in them, as it happens. Did we expect a memo?

Two hundred years or so before we heard reports of a magically reassuring place called the No Spin Zone, William Blake talked about “mind-forged manacles,” metal clasps forged by the mind and for the mind. He heard the clank of the manacles whenever human beings opened their mouths. It’s the sound of people letting other people do their thinking for them. It’s the dirty trick whereby we keep perception at a safe arm’s length, denying ourselves the ability to think carefully, and letting a talking head, a career politician, or an ideological authority do the work for us. As Simon and Garfunkel tell us, it’s the way we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

News networks understand this. They have to sell the news, after all. And what is news? Whatever they can sell unto us as news. They anticipate what it is that most people will watch and, for better or worse, deliver the audiovisual goods. If we want to hear about Lindsey Lohan’s woes more than we want to know about genocide in Darfur, Lindsey Lohan’s daily life will be the news. To survive, the networks have to play to our “felt needs.” In this sense, we are the newsmakers—and the networks are just the sales force. They’ll give us whatever they think we want. It is all they can afford to give.

But what about the reality-based folks who want to know things that the networks aren’t selling—the names and places that are hard to pronounce and the stories that challenge the way we live? To be reality-based will mean to distrust, in some way, our own preference for the news that sits easily in our heads. The reality-based will hunt down uncomfortable facts that call into question assumptions about the everyday world. When the reality-based discover news that unsettles and challenges old paradigms, they might even call it gospel—good news. Good because it’s truthful, and if truthful, redeeming.

Sometimes uncomfortable facts feel biased. Because we’re all standing somewhere, living within a particular culture, born and raised among particular people, certain facts feel biased because they challenge our self-esteem. It’s as if real life elsewhere was somehow designed to make us feel guilty. When facts make us feel bad about ourselves (starving children, civilian casualties, impossible trade laws imposed on the so-called two-thirds world), will we have to the wit and humility to look hard at them anyway? We’ll always be free to call the facts “biased,” but are we only interested in civilian death tolls that won’t threaten our assumptions about our good-hearted foreign policy? If certain eye-witness testimonies call our presumed goodness into question, will we allow them into the witness box? Or do we only allow positive press? We’re always free to turn away and go back to our preferred news sources (ministering to our “felt needs”). But if we’re reality-based, we’ll renounce knee-jerk defensiveness and look harder. We will be good intelligence gatherers. Even when revelations make us feel stupid because of who we voted for, we’ll want the revelations anyway. If they’re true, they’re good. Even if they don’t make us feel good right away.

Radioactive Days

Given the tremendous amount of energy and resources expended by business interests and political parties to invent public reality, it will take serious strength of will to resist the informational echo chambers of our culture. If we’re to be reality-based, we’ll have to refuse the limited identities we’ve been offered on the treadmills of hyper-consumerism. Reality-based people will be distinguished by an eagerness to discover their own failings. And we will resist the vast feedback mechanism that tells us, on a daily basis, that we’re never wrong, we’ve never been wrong, and it will always be the others who are wrong. Instead, we get to live in anticipation of great awakening. We get to listen to each other.

Genuine listening is a rare happening among us. All too often, we find others uninteresting or irrelevant when they fail to say what we want to hear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Remaining receptive to unpackaged reality will involve vigilance and curiosity and determined hospitality. It will require an eye and an ear for new stories, stories that may well lead us to regard as scandalous our own habits of consumption or the policies of our government.

Popular discourse suggests that certain people are unworthy of our attention. It’s as if millions of people never enter our imaginations—not even as casualties. They don’t enter the gates of our chosen media. Instead, we need to question. What content do I privilege? How many different kinds of people do I encounter? What am I taking in? To whom do I go to figure out what’s going on?

In these radioactive days, listening a little harder, looking with a wider-angle lens, or simply being slower to push the “I’m offended!” button might be revolutionary actions. Not content to deal in sound-bites, we can aspire to be more reality-based. But like humility, it probably isn’t a quality you have when you’re sure you have it. When we claim to be without spin, we lie and the truth isn’t living within us. It’s a difficult task to want to know what we don’t want to know. And it’s made all the more difficult by the audiovisual con game in which we live.

In light of the con, it’s often a pleasure to turn to The Colbert Report or The Daily Show, perhaps especially when we consider Jon Stewart’s framing of his presentation, “And now … the fake news.” It unmasks the con that is news production, news as whatever will momentarily soothe our minds, news that presumes to name itself unfake. While the paradoxical authority of satire’s unseriousness would be undermined by a claim to legitimacy (“Listen to me! I’m serious now!), it’s hard to resist the suggestion that the real news is being meaningfully broadcast through a satirical presentation; that the only popular attempt at news analysis on offer is coming at us through comedy. The fake news is the news. Picking up on this note, Bill Moyers once remarked that he wasn’t sure whether the form Stewart and his team are practicing is parody or satire. Stewart replied that what they’re actually practicing is a new form of desperation.

Circus Time

The power of the put on, whether it’s understood to be comedic, religious, or political, is the subject of the above exchange between Moyers, formerly a press secretary for the Johnson administration and now a preeminent newsman, and Stewart, a comedian who resists the labels of media critic and political commentator, preferring, it appears, the label of “Song and Dance Man” (like Bob Dylan and Andy Kauffman before him) over pretensions to significance and gravitas. Both men are the sum of particular choices they’ve made. And the task of those who aspire to be reality-based is similar to the work of discernment involved in the careers of these two, our fellow broadcasters. Perhaps it’s the same work.

We all have the power to create our own media networks via the internet and the postal service, and the ability to put pen to paper, words to song, and paint to canvas. It’s all our media, after all. What will we put on the air? What will we listen for? What will our output be? Who doesn’t work in media?

These questions come to mind when I recall a televised conversation between David Letterman and PBS’s Charlie Rose. When asked to draw a comparison between what he does and what was accomplished by Johnny Carson in his years on the air, Letterman remarked that what his team delivers is essentially “circus time,” with things being lit on fire, dropped in water, and thrown off of buildings. Letterman isn’t happy with this state of affairs. It isn’t as if trying to make conversation with the last person to get voted off the island is Letterman’s preferred vocation, but an exhibition of literal nonsense appears to be what’s required. He stressed that he could never really know for sure, but playing in the big leagues in the unending competitiveness of prime time seems to allow for no pause in circus time. He wants, after all, to stay on the air.

With heartbreaking candor, he expressed a preference for the kind of television associated with Tom Snyder and Rose himself, the exhilaratingly legitimate moment of people talking to each other and other people tuning in from far away. But could he risk it and keep up with Jay Leno and The Tonight Show? Would he remain, as the saying goes, commercially viable? Not necessarily. He has to play it safe. Back to throwing stuff off of buildings—back to whatever it takes.

Before the cameras, David Letterman can’t talk to the kind of people he wants to talk to. He can’t quite facilitate the stories he’d like. His show can’t show what he wants it to show. He can’t do what he wants to do without losing access. Access to what? Power? Influence? Like everyone else, he has to guess at what the biggest chunk of viewers want and then deliver it. And what haunts him is the feeling that the guess might be wrong. Maybe the viewers want what he thinks he can’t give them. The medium, in this sense, is devastatingly limited. The competition for viewers is a race to the bottom. I’m reminded of Fred Friendly’s observation that the producers of television broadcasts are so powerfully and amply rewarded for doing the wrong things that they aren’t inclined to ask what might be, television-wise, right and good and promoting of psychological health. Success makes a failure of the medium’s content.

Sellers of news product in newsrooms around the country may not honestly feel that a celebrity behaving badly is more important than Buddhist monks in Burma laying down their lives in nonviolent demonstration. Like Letterman, they might long for something different. They might sense the revolutionary hope, the redeeming possibility, implicit in people talking to each other, sharing stories, and allowing their minds to be changed, but exploring such possibilities isn’t necessarily their job description. A network executive, in this sense, is a person paid to be a human face standing beside an automatic pilot entirely deaf, we might say, to real human interest. They gain a world of ratings but forfeit the possibility of soul, the possibility of communicating substance.

If the name of Fred Friendly didn’t strike a chord, I’ll mention now that he appeared as a character in Good Night and Good Luck portrayed by the film’s director, George Clooney. The film chronicles the culture of the CBS newsroom of the 1950’s with particular emphasis upon Friendly’s relationship with his closest professional associate, Edward R. Murrow. They’re constantly seeking out and broadcasting the stories they feel the American people need to hear. For them, that which is most newsworthy is that which people might be able to do something about. Actionable intelligence, we might call it. Their career-long commitment to doing the job this way is legendary.

Friendly famously observed that it was the job of the journalist to create a pain in the audience’s minds, a pain so intense that it can only be relieved by thinking. That sounds about right to me. And I’d like to extend the job description to include any bearer of story, any bearer of witness. The storyteller’s job is to bring the news (the new take, the new word, the strange report) and to bring it in such a way that it might change people’s minds. As we receive it, the newsworthy story drives us to see our world and our selves differently. Real news stories change our stories, our understanding of our own lives.

In the powerful speech that opens Good Night and Good Luck, Edward R. Murrow addresses a 1958 convention of radio and television news directors with an eye toward naming the responsibilities that come with alleged reportage. He is deeply pessimistic concerning the effectiveness of his words (“This just might do nobody any good.”), but the vision he shares brings the vocation of witness back down to the promise and the hazards of people talking to each other:

I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. You will forgive me for not telling you that instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.

While he observes, for the record, that he is an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting System, he contextualizes these remarks as his own personal broadcast on the subject of the state of television broadcasting. As a broadcast, his remarks are “of a ‘do-it-your-self’ nature,” and while these words are less broadly cast than the ones that make it into the hearts and minds of millions, he wants to remind his listeners (and perhaps himself) that such grassroots exchanges (be they in bars, bus-stops, or diners) are no less authoritative; no less worthy of being counted as wise; no less newsworthy. There’s a whisper of revolution whenever people really speak to one another, and really listen. Sending and receiving. Is this thing on? This revolution might even occur (Murrow hopes) via television. But things are looking grim.

Murrow imagines courageous souls with small budgets who might dare to tell plight of Native Americans, for instance; news that the American public, it is supposed, has yet to want to hear; news that is therefore not deemed newsworthy. But if television remains a means to “methods of insulating while selling,” only catering to “our built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information,” Murrow argues, it will be a dead and deadening medium. Broadcasters are left to function as sellers of advertising, and their broadcast content (often indistinguishable from the advertisements themselves) will be devoid of any suggestion that the untelevised might require the viewers’ attention. As a committed newsman, Murrow can’t vouch for it. Properly speaking, it won’t be broadcasting news at all. One will have to look elsewhere, beyond those “wires and lights in a box” to research what’s going on and where it’s at.

What’s Going On?

Real news, I believe, is whatever drives us to think again. And I think most of us are on the prowl for it most of the time. I even still hope for it via the television. In spite of everything he’s up against, I still count on Letterman for that unexpected response to the surreal status quo as he sits there hitting those cards against his desk. Like Stewart and Colbert, he isn’t just making things funny; he’s facilitating moments of reality within circus time. He’s staging something. In 2000, I watched him ask then-Governor George W. Bush to distinguish between retaliation and due process of law, to acknowledge the fact of a melting polar ice cap, and to offer a word on how one could preside over so many executions in Texas—one hundred and fifty two—with such eerie self-confidence. It seemed that, amid the complexities of circus time, he was asking harder and better questions than had been put to the 2000 campaign thus far. He was bringing the news in a manner worthy of Murrow. An illumination was underway for anyone with an ear to hear. The real news won’t always advertise itself as such.

Marshall McLuhan once quipped that anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either. In typical fashion, McLuhan breaks down the high and low culture distinctions that sometimes get in the way of grappling well with what’s in front of us. A story (whether in a book, a thirty-second ad spot, a sitcom, or a song) isn’t merely entertaining. It’s telling you something. It has content. It seeks to feelingly persuade. It will colonize your imagination as you’re sitting there laughing to yourself.

The media we admit into our lives are alive and signaling. Do we engage, or are we merely engaged? When we talk about literature or rave about a film, when we write something down or commit a line to memory, are we looking to open the doors of perception? If we don’t talk about what we’re taking in, why is it worthy of our energy? Have we lost the notion that Shakespeare is trying to tell us what’s going on? Do we find Zora Neale Hurston trustworthy? Is Emily Dickinson a good intelligence gatherer? Literature is a public broadcasting system. What is being proposed, made plain, and revealed?

Shakespeare Is Country Music

What are we hoping for when we download a song? What sense of expectation do we have when we pay money to watch somebody belt out a chorus in a darkened room? What are we looking for in a book club? There’s something so commonplace about our taking in of media that we tend to forget about the remarkable degree of faith, hope, and love involved. What I think we’re looking for is a good word. We’re daring to believe that reality might unfurl before us by way of other human voices. We might even believe a soothsayer or shaman is about to show up among people like us. We’re experimenting with an Amen.

Buy the Book!

Buy the Book!

In Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan tells of finding Thelonious Monk sitting alone at the Blue Note with a large, half-consumed sandwich on top of his piano. When the young singer mentions that he plays folk music up the street, Monk responds as if commenting on the weather: “We all play folk music.”

Folk. Now there’s a good word. It manages to lift a burden somehow. Folk is just folks trying to tell other folks what’s happening in their heads and in the world. Folk is trying to tell truthfully what happened by telling it a little slant. Folk poetry, if we want to put it that way. Folk art, if art and poetry are the highest praise we can give to someone’s attempt get through to us; to tell us what all’s going on. Do we have an appetite for the plainspeak?

Ezra Pound once wrote that literature is “news that stays news” Literature is the sound of full disclosure, an apocalypse, an unveiling, an unmasking. It’s what we’re after when we’re looking for what’s true regardless of who it privileges or de-privileges. It cuts across history and whatever divides we set up between people; people who are all just folks. Drawing upon Pound’s language, Ferlinghetti challenges the poet (or anyone who wants to make things new) to write “living newspapers.”

The news-bearing, lyrical word is not an edict from on high, but often a disruptively truthful word about the way things are. It expands the sphere of sanity little by little, and it breaks into monopolies on truth, overcoming the reigning myopia. I like to tell my students that anything they find in their literature textbooks should be viewed as no more or less highfalutin’ than a trucker writing words of love or loss on a napkin at a Waffle House. Shakespeare is country music. The words weren’t written and saved and passed down to make us feel stupid or estranged. In literature, there are no strangers. Everyone’s invited. Everyone’s allowed. The words on the page, the words of song, are all ways of paying attention, means to remembering some very important things. The means we sometimes call media.

A revelatory word can come from any quarter, from believer, unbeliever, and misbeliever alike. No hierarchy. No official words. No news professionals, as if there could ever be such a thing. Only testimonies. Poems. People being people.

We’re on the prowl for inspiration. We want something extra-authentic, something to shake our nerves and rattle our brains. We need something to keep us from throwing in the towel and losing our minds—something to get us out of bed. Gospel, the news we call good, is always a media issue.

Build Your Own Reality Studio

This idea that media are only what we make of them returns us to the question of collage, of collating information and image, perhaps most wonderfully evident in that personalized, affectionate form of recommended listening we used to call the mixtape. Once mixtapes came along (I think I was 14 or 15), there was no going back. What could be a more powerful blessing than to have vouchsafed on me a carefully orchestrated collection of songs (hand-picked, painstakingly ordered with well-placed segues) by someone for whom I felt respect, someone who thought I would do well to hear these songs? The mixtape was, and is, like a handwritten letter or a little work of art. A cause for absolute euphoria. The sound of someone caring.

And of course I started compiling my own. I’d feign nonchalance, as if I’d only accidentally recorded a collection of favorites with a particular person in mind. But I couldn’t sustain the charade for long. Making a mixtape is the opposite of indifferent. It’s heartfelt, purposeful—often a subtle form of flirtation. And it’s downright embarrassing if these collections aren’t treasured or at least paid a little mind, because the mixtape is a way of making yourself known, an interpersonal form of show business, of making news, of replicating sounds and words you find important. It’s like poetry because poetry is what you can’t say in any other way. At its most essential level, a mixtape is a way of getting through.

Making mixtapes—or playlists, now—is an instance of how the work gets done, how formative influences do their formative work. The recommendations (“You should check this out.” “Have you heard this?”) are how we find out what’s going on. The true and truthful can seem elusive, so we stay on the lookout for revelation. We need art and stories and songs that break down, in Murrow’s phrase, our long habit of reality insulation. And when we find them, we pass them on.

Murrow sensed that reality insulation was fast becoming the mode of operation for electronic media, an operation that deadens our ability to critically engage with news and information. He predicted a time when political strategists and other salespeople would observe, as a sort of truism, that perception is more important than reality. Reality, as he knew then and we know all too well now, could be manufactured, reinvented every day to suit the agendas of political parties and transnational corporations and governments. But we aren’t without resources in the work of critical engagement.

The forces that seek to shape popular discourse are, ultimately, only allowed the airtime we allow them. There are the big, expensive reality studios (as William S. Burroughs calls them), largely controlled by certain, moneyed interests. But they broadcast meaningfully only when sufficient numbers of people pay heed. Our own broadcasts and our responses to the broadcasts of others can be beautifully local and interpersonal, less beholden to the concept of ratings. Our broadcasts can be the mixtapes, the lyricizing of reality, that come to us through music, stories, and image. There’s an ancient conversation going on in a variety of forms, and there are so many ways of naming it: the space of literature, the religious sphere, the cosmic plainspeak, the poetic. The poet Cid Corman observes that poetry, in this sense, is the conversation we can’t have in any other way. There are so many ways of building your own reality studio. So many ways of raising your hand, picking up the microphone, tuning in. We need not be mere consumers, mere addicts. We can be producers, sharers, hunters, and gatherers. You are your own media mogul. People have the power.

Openness—and the production of plainspeak—is possible only when we seek out and encounter others in all their stunning actuality, when we really invite people to show up in conversation, the place where we share our news or our sense of the news. If we leave it to the major news media to practice these conversations for us, most of what’s being cultivated in our hearts and minds is a kind of escalating narcissism, tailor-made to fit our patterns of prejudice and insecurity. When we could be sharing stories, becoming more modest in our viewpoints, trying to redemptively process reality in one another’s presence, we instead sit before the screen as addicts, watching beautiful people toss their hair in shampoo commercials. Our reality gets manufactured for us by forces that pose a kind of psychological health hazard. These media networks are carefully designed and redesigned to hold our attention by any means necessary. It’s their job, and they do it extremely well.

But there are other networks, other reality studios, other media. And they are as near as the nearest person, book, or blogosphere (to the extent that the blog in question isn’t held captive by someone else’s predetermined talking points). Hope is as near as the nearest work of art, the closest conversation, the person nearby who wishes someone would ask her a question.

The People’s CNN

To broadcast an honest word in our age often feels as if it’s destined to be forgotten before it’s even been heard. But if we can cultivate a more historical sense of the way news exchange works (via literature, folk music, poetry or whatever label we want to give this time travel technology whereby we speak to one another across the ages), we might begin to see that the lust for large audiences, high ratings, and a fast-track to immediate celebrity is a form of madness.

Our desire for trustworthy media sources seems to take us any and everywhere. We’re pilgrims on a quest to find the story that speaks to our own world, the history we’re swimming in.

Truth-telling broadcasts often fall on deaf ears. The best (whether as books, folk songs, or paintings) will only rarely be bestselling within their creator’s lifetime. But the songs remain the same. The broadcasts continue. The mixtape-making impulse is with us. We keep tuning in and hoping to hear a good word.

In The Confidence Man, Herman Melville describes humanity as a “multiform pilgrim species.” That’s a wonderfully broad way of naming our inner detective who is always looking for a story that will help us add things up, a story that might resolve all the incoherence, a story in which we might locate ourselves, a place of mediation. We are all on a pilgrimage, always striving after meaning, always hoping for a breakthrough. We want an epiphany, an adventure in precision, something that might kick down the doors of our dim-witted hypocrisy.

In my attempt to secure an audience for the voices of news-breaking, folkways tradition in my high school classroom, I’ve tried to pitch British Literature textbooks as the equivalent of a wonderfully thick playlist, the “Greatest Hits” according to a certain tradition. I tell my students that a tradition, according to G.K. Chesterton, is nothing more (or less) than a democracy of the dead. Maybe all those people knew something. Maybe there’s something tried and true in this collection. Maybe there’s some news that’s still news.

And to borrow a little from Chuck D of Public Enemy, folk tradition in this sense is the people’s CNN. In the predominantly oral societies of ancient times (Roman-occupied, first-century Palestine, for instance), it was believed that words were infused with mystical powers. But it was often the case in those days, as in ours, that speaking truthfully, prophetically, or in an inspired fashion wasn’t something just anyone could do; only priests, prophets on the payroll, cronies, and other news professionals were permitted to make sure the right speech got spoken. Someone else decided what the news was, someone divorced from local concerns. Sound familiar?

We understand that these power brokers are with us always, hijacking our attempts to broadcast news to one another and co-opting our ability to function as communities. But folk expression (then and now) will cut through the noise. Art restores our sanity. And in-between the cracks of popular discourse, via blogs, libraries, live performances, and well-stocked iPods, better broadcasts are unprecedentedly within arm’s reach. Grassroots concerns are a click away. There are so many ways of letting reality back in.

The painter Paul Klee once observed that art, in this sense, doesn’t reproduce what we see; it makes us see. It gives us something true to life. And now more than ever, this form of public service announcement is always open to questioning, editing, embellishment, and retelling—and the results are wonderfully liberating. Our sense of what is newsworthy is too crucial to living a good and just life to be left to detached interests who will do whatever it takes to win the ratings race which, content-wise, is a race to the bottom.

No Nobodies

As we consider the revolutionary and redeeming possibilities of mixtapes, blogspots, balladeering, and other forms of breaking news, I recall my discovery of a container, affixed to a wall outside a New England post office building, filled with Xeroxed copies of a one-sheet newspaper called “The Broadside.” For “one thin dime” placed in a metal box beside the container, anyone could have one. Needless to say, I was profoundly inspired (“That’s what I’m talking about!” I remarked to myself). A Thomas Jefferson quote at the top of the page decreed the town meeting, of all things, to be “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man.”

“Yes indeed,” I said aloud, adding the words that were forming in my mind. “And the town meeting was invented by the early church.”

As is so often the case, I spoke before I thought. But the thought beginning to form was this: it is good news—wonderful news—when people gather in small groups to say what they think and with a determination to give ear to all comers, an audience for every raised hand. This is how everyday people (in Sly Stone’s phrase) begin to receive authority and dignity?

To better think through the sociological significance of the good news at work within the New Testament—and what on earth it might have to do with town meetings, the blogosphere, and folk expression, and town meetings—we might echo the befuddled and frustrated testimony of Flannery O’Connor’s philosophizing serial killer, the Misfit, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” The Misfit winces at the mention of a savior who single handedly brought up the net value of human beings for every culture that takes him seriously. The Misfit sees how rumors of the Nazarene’s notions mess with what passes as normal, expert, and professional. The whole mess, in the Misfit’s view, can disturb a man’s confidence. He figures that if Jesus were the real deal, there’s nothing to do but drop everything and follow him. And if he weren’t? “No pleasure but meanness.”

To the Misfit, Jesus’ gospel isn’t just another peaceful, easy feeling or a decent sentiment gently submitted for our approval. The good news is a blazing, blood-red, question mark against whatever we consider common sense. Like a chain reaction (or a slow train coming), the gospel is a different sort of social imagination moving through history, breaking the pavement of countless cultural status quos, eventually searing even the conscience of the Misfit’s southern forbears, a slave-holding culture that believed itself to have the definitive word on how to read that thick, black, leather-bound book.

The ancient broadcast of Jesus of Nazareth, the Misfit laments, unsettles everybody’s judgment, everything that seems right. What do you do with enemies? Love them. What do you do with your stuff? Share it. What about the foreigners or the strangers among you? Receive them. Look after their health. The Misfit is such a memorable character because, psycho killer though he is, he nevertheless takes Jesus’ good news (gospel) seriously. More seriously, we understand, than the self-described Christians who still make unfortunate distinctions when it comes to their fellow human beings—hard-working Americans/illegals, child of God/collateral damage, bearer of inalienable rights/enemy combatant, us/them. The many want the Jesus Christ whose name is a secret password into eternal bliss. The few will allow Jesus’ gospel to infect the way they think about, talk about, and regard other people. The few will grapple (like the Misfit) with Jesus’ good news broadcast.

If we do grapple with it, our sense of the newsworthy and of who we need to be listening to will be subverted and overturned. We will begin to sense a sanctifying presence in new places. We’ll dream new dreams about ourselves. The remarkable and the holy will show up unexpectedly. Our sense of the world will become one where no human life is unsacred or uninteresting, and there are no nobodies. Every stranger has a story.

It’s this very presumptuousness—that something very worthwhile, cosmically significant even, is happening among the least of these—that brings us to the global broadcast called the Day of Pentecost. At Pentecost, Peter explains the very strange occurrence of mass communication between Jews of different languages, accompanied by the rush, the rattle and hum, of a violent wind, by declaring that the Spirit of the Lord is being poured out on all flesh. In Acts 2, Peter goes on to say that the life lived by the agitator they’ve all heard about, the recently executed Jewish peasant revolutionary, Jesus of Nazareth, would not be held by the power of death, that God freed him from death, and everyone present is invited to enter into his way of doing things. They’re invited to turn around, to step out of the presently crooked world orders and risk all on resurrection.

By the time of Jesus’ death, Jesus’ freedom to speak the truth aloud under duress was literally all he had left. And here’s Peter telling the gathered that Jesus’ word is the word of the Lord. That, like Jesus, they’re called to speak and live truthfully and to let the chips fall even unto death. He’s telling them that Jesus’ mode of truthfulness, this mode of telling true, is an eternal liveliness. Beleaguered, yet unconquerable. All too vulnerable, they know, yet somehow invulnerable.

It’s all we’ve got—all we’ve ever had. Bearing witness, telling the story of what happened and what’s happening, is the genre of all genres. The only news. The only poetry.

Poetry and Pentecost

In a discussion of poetry and religion, Denise Levertov offers a vision of the poetic as the way people manage to communicate with one another as they try to stay afloat and be a support to one another within “the ocean of crisis in which we swim” I find this image simultaneously helpful and sobering. How do we communicate humanly? How do we discern one another? How do we figure out how to act justly?

As we consider the general devaluing of human life, it’s helpful to consider the political significance of Pentecost as a revolution in the power of human speech (the breaking news that keeps on breaking). The events described in the book of Acts lead to the establishment of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) as, in Melville’s phrase again, a “multiform pilgrim species.” No one infected by the event would “know their place” ever again. Any hierarchy we can name, any myth that keeps some people above other people will, in time, be uproariously overturned. Call it democracy.

And lest we forget, the hope of democracy depends on actually practicing it. Without a polity, without an assembly of people who speak to one another, listen, disagree agreeably, and occasionally change their minds, democracy is just a high-sounding word employed by high-tech hypnotists. We have to do the work of critical reflection and communal discernment. We can’t get wise all by ourselves.

It is rumored that the Spirit of the Lord is being poured out on all flesh and that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. With the word (sung or spoken) now radically possessed by the second-class citizenry, poetry and song become a witness more reliable than the “official” status quo. A new way of talking and listening is born. There are all manner of news networks abounding, and the revolutions might occasionally be televised. The cosmic plainspealk that is everywhere will often help us overcome and articulate what Pete Seeger calls “the ocean of misunderstanding between human beings.” In the ancient Near East, the New Testament’s word of life under Roman rule would be very different from what the Empire was in the habit of telling itself about itself. The subversively truthful report we call good news brings mythic realities down low.

People Talking To Each Other

This good news broadcast is multipartisan. Properly understood, it makes equal-opportunity pilgrims of males, females, Jews, Gentiles, slaves, and the legally free. Nobody owns the copyright on the good, truthful, reality-bearing word. No label can contain the reach of the people’s good news. In this sense, gospel is a wider ranging broadcast than we tend to imagine. Perhaps inevitably, the term would eventually be used for advertising purposes, but that doesn’t mean we have to define it so rigidly. The biblical witness is a little muddier than the “spirituality” market allows. When we think of the biblical broadcast as “religion” that exists primarily to “uplift” emotionally, we’re missing the point. And gospel, in the deepest sense, can’t exactly stay out of politics, as the saying goes, because the news bears witness with no neat divisions. Gospel speaks truth to everyone, high and low alike.

Take Johnny Cash who, as a kind of newsman, purposefully sought to channel, in his words, “voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments.” That’s a vocation, for sure, and we shouldn’t reduce such a witness to a particular marketing genre any more than we’d characterize William Blake’s vision as either religious or political. It’s all folk music. The dichotomies don’t fly when we’re dealing with a human heart in conflict with itself—and that’s every human heart. Folk expression is a way of staring down madness with mirth and death with determined truth telling. In this sense, there is no terrain outside folk’s jurisdiction, no subject that’s inappropriate or irrelevant to the stories and sayings and lamentations.

We’re sold “news” that has the same effect on the human heart as foot-binding had on women’s feet in ancient China. When that which passes for news is untruthful—largely void of real, investigative power—and never urges us to look a little harder at other people’s faces or our own, we become people who are no longer capable of the give and take of human conversation. Such images and sounds don’t invite real listening, only consumption.

To maintain some grip on reality, we have to constantly remind ourselves that the news is never what happened. It’s a story about what happened, and it is only rarely worthy of its own advertising. News product, usually quick and dependably shallow, will usually be the opposite of “in-depth coverage.” We know this is how it works. What are we left with?

How about folk? A more reliable witness to what’s going, demanding to be inherited, committed to memory, sung around a fire, rehearsed and recited. Folk isn’t so arrogant as to view itself as a No Spin Zone, because folk music understands that to spin is human. And those who think they’re without spin have a nasty, high-ratings habit of casting the first stone. Folk music is a little more modest in its goals, but folk will try to tell truth as well as it can, even among the slow to believe. Folk invites our consent. And if we’re willing, its gospel will become a part of the way we see, chastening and invigorating our way of looking at the world. It’s the possibility of finding ourselves based in reality humanely mediated. Folk is good news. Folk is people talking.

© 2009 by David Dark, excerpted from The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.

David Dark's latest book is The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. He is also the author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, and The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Sarah Masen, with whom he blogs at Peer Pressure is Forever.